Adventures on the Way

Long-distance driving often feels like meditation. Sitting upright, remaining alert and relaxed. Watching how the road unfolds ahead, and unspools out behind me. Nowhere really to be, except exactly where my tires are, the road beneath them as I travel along. At 65 mph, right where I am so clearly does not last at all. And it’s easy to focus ahead and behind. The center line accelerating as it gets closer, a Doppler effect of white, vanishing beneath the front bumper. Easy to grow hypnotized by that, as well as the line trailing behind me. I remember as a child sitting with arms folded, head and chin resting on the rear seat back, the blur of what is right along side is just movement, and easier to see in contemplation of it as the past, People, places, memories, goodbyes are back there. What reason, really, is there for the driver to watch that?. Scanning the rearview mirror as I was taught, looking for what?— either a rapidly approaching car that will push me to the ditch, or a police car, siren going and lights flashing, moving to another emergency. Or perhaps after me, for some mistake I made, turned without a blinker on, or when they aimed their radar at me. So that place, there behind, is for worry and regret. As in life. And maybe sa few sweet memories or goodbyes. Perhaps home is always what is left behind there. Or is home  what lies ahead, the anxiety of returning, for helloes and embraces of those I love? Or to a new home, greetings to those I’ve never met, worry there about what’s to come, mixed with excitement of what is to be. The only thing real is what is right beneath me.—taking care not to become too hypnotized by the road trailing behind, leaving no tracks on the smooth asphalt; or the road lying ahead.

Today, my friend Michael and I are in the car, heading to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area to reenact a trip made as young men 49 years ago. On that first trip we were dropped off in the Canadian wilderness by train and paddled for a week, Michael, Rick, and I. Worries then about girlfriends left behind, missing them and perhaps more, missing the music we lived to hear each day, the friends, and beer. Worried about the road ahead, the border, where we’d hide our supply of pot for a week’s traveling in these lakes and streams. Today, old men, we carry no drugs, except the Advil metered out to last us for the 7 days of this trip. Heading up the interstate, then 30 miles down a dirt road to the outfitters and on into the wilderness, muddied by rains over the last month. Heavy rains as we drive today, following us all the way for 300 miles. Hopefully there will be a break once we set out from the outfitters with our canoe, equipment and food.

And then, days of paddling. Michael more comfortable and skilled at being in the stern and steering. My job to just paddle in the bow. My excitement to be here translates into continually increasing my pace, and Micheal me again to slow down. Then it occurs to me to tie the stroke to breath. I begin the stroke, paddle entering the water, with my out breath, when strength is greatest. After completing the stroke, I lift it out of the water and bring the paddle back to the front of the canoe, breathing in, a deep breath to begin again, and with the beginning of the out breath I pull the paddle along again. It works, and I am able to maintain a steady rhythm, even when the wind or rain comes, waves rise up, and it becomes more work. And my meditation practice is useful here too, not just tying into the breath, but remaining balanced and upright, head clear as thoughts flow by like the waves around us. Older now, as I say, we pace ourselves, not harsh and urgent paddling or hiking on portages. We’ve planned one hard day, and then we’ll rest at a campsite for as long as we want. Take side trips, and return to the outfitter’s with a leisurely day or two of paddling. 

Second to the last day, It’s raining, windy, so we decide to make it a two-day trip back. Refreshed and rested from a 3 day layover, we’re ready for the hard paddling and portages through mud and over the Laurentian divide. Here too, best to just focus on what’s beneath my feet. Looking too far ahead at the rising trail, or the downhill slog on the other side, steals me away from this moment—this decision about where to set my foot, to avoid water, mud, a stumble or a broken ankle. What is behind or ahead is of no matter, all is funneled into this moment and this step on the trail. Rains have left the trail even muddier than on the way in, and so I am more careful about not ending up with my foot in mud up to my knee, nearly unable to get it out. 

A day of this, and we’re only about two hours straight down Sawbill lake from the outfitters and the end of this journey. We camp one more night, then set out mid-morning, feeling there’s no rush since we don’t have to be in until 4:00. Break camp, divide up what goes back to the outfitters and what we’ll keep. We set off in light winds and slight drizzle. Halfway down the lake the winds pick up, rain increases. The canoe is low in the water, waves go from a foot high to 2 feet high, maybe more. We make sure to stay away from the center of the lake, where even if with life vests and a canoe to hang on to if we tipped, it’s not certain we’d last long enough in the cold water to make it. So we hew to the shore, looking for spots to safely put ashore if we need to. 

At times, between the wind and waves, I paddle as hard as I can just to stay in one place, but not with the ease of a bird riding the wind. It’s hard work, and scary. Still timing paddling to breath, easy to do more quickly now since breath comes faster with exertion and worry. We’re just about to go round a point and hope we’ll see the end, the dock for the outfitters down the lake. Before we can reach it, trying to remain upright, calm, strong only in the moment right there, not looking at the past, or too hungry to reach the end, putting all into remaining afloat and safe right here. And suddenly, a turn that is nearly imperceptible, just enough that we’re no longer to headed directly into the wind and waves (and which Michael would blame himself for after, wrongly I’d add.) It’s just enough to catch the bow. That moment I’ve been dancing with, between what has passed behind, and what lies ahead, is suddenly cleaved like the 15 foot basalt boulder we passed earlier, cleanly split down the middle. There is no past or future, only the smooth hard surfaces of this moment I am thrust into, literally, as the water opens up and takes me in under its surface. I am freshly awakened bye the cold water, and find as I come up that I’m under the canoe. Again, no past or future, just this moment, as I go down again to try to come up around the canoe. And I do come up, already too far away to get back to the canoe, upside down now, and see Micheal hanging on to the canoe. He calls to me, as he couldn’t see me when I was under, which he hadn’t done. “I’m ok. You just swim to shore!” he shouts. So I do, covering the 30 yards or so to the rocky shore. We make it to dry land and find all our gear, including sleeping bags, are soaked. No way we’re putting back in with the chop that’s out there. We get to a clearing, out of our wet clothes, and put on what little we can find that’s still dry. Frightened, shivering, unsure of what to do next. But with the question of what is this present moment suddenly answered for once and for all in my heart and mind.

So…we waited out the storm and wind and made it safely back that evening with one last wild paddle. The next day I drove home, dropping Michael off on the way for a ride to Chicago and a reunion of college friends. Back home in the following days, that moment of capsizing was still like one of the giant boulders submerged in a stream, not moving, in my path every way I turned. I thought about it all, with second-guesses and recriminations, all the human ways of dealing with something like that. Had we been fools, should we have done something differently, were we really in the danger I felt we were? I remained drenched with the feeling of life’s uncertainty. It was a story to tell, an exciting one even, but I found I downplayed the danger. And realized in doing so I also minimized the fear I’d felt, and the wonder of the experience. How there’d been no room for thoughts, just the cold water, the immediacy of the moment, the need to find the surface and air. There was time right afterwards for thinking—formulating a plan, assigning blame, questioning ourselves, deciding whether to stay there and camp or try to get to the outfitters, worrying about hypothermia, as Michael had been in the water longer than I had and couldn’t seem to get warm.

But in reflection I returned again and again to the moment of seeing past and future, him and me, life and death, break like that stone and only the urgency of life remain in its center. Only response, action and awareness of the closeness always of death, and feeling that even when death comes it will simply be another step on this path. To be faced with…not urgency, not calm, but something beyond thought. Just meeting whatever is presented and what the moment required.

The night we were to come off the trail we’d made arrangements to stay at a cabin on Lake Superior, in a small resort that had not yet opened for the season. It had a woodturning sauna five feet from the lake, and after a week of mud, cold water and no showers we were looking forward to it. We arrived late, but the owners still fired up the sauna for us, and we headed down with great anticipation to use it. Opening the door, the entire sauna was filled with smoke. “Is it supposed to be like this?” Michael asked with alarm. No it was not, and we told the owner. Then we proceeded to bring her buckets of water as she put out the fire that had started in the wall next to the stove. A final reminder for the day from the universe, that life is uncertain and an emergency case moment to moment. There was to be no sauna that night. Just hot showers, and warm dry beds. 

Lying there, settling into the blankets and thinking of the day’s adventure, I remembered something Katagiri Roshi had said years before in a talk. “We all want awakening to be something spectacular, with thunder, lightning and great excitement. But enlightenment is simpler, more like traveling all day on the road, and at the end of the day’s journey coming to a quiet clean motel room to rest in.” That was more than enough for me at the end of this day.

Death of a Bodhisattva

Bodhisattvas, in case you haven’t heard of them before, are sort of the Buddhist version of saints. They are people who have taken on the project of enlightening themselves and doing it so they may relieve the suffering of others and aid them in enlightening themselves, too. It starts with a vow, just a small one—to save all sentient beings. But saints, at least in the Christian sense, can perform miracles and seem somehow to be more than the rest of us. That is unless we’re talking about the colloquial “my mother is a saint,” which is actually pretty close to Bodhisattvas. Bodhisattvas can be otherwise regular folks who help others.

My work as a mental health social worker brought me in contact with many Bodhisattvas. I’ve often said the most wonderful part of my work is just being witness to the courageous hearts and lives of these people. I would never question the whole idea of privacy and confidentiality, as I know that to be able to do the work I do with people it is a necessity. But the challenge is that I can bear witness to that, but can share very little of it. So I see people working small miracles in their daily lives, and that must go untold. Unfortunately it also makes people who are already unseen even more invisible than they already are.

So, I want to tell you about the death of one of these Bodhisattvas, to bear witness to at least one person’s amazing life. I worked with Bob (which is not his real name, and I’ll do whatever I can to blur the details about him) for about 13 years. Sadly he passed away just recently. Unfortunately, I was the one who found him after he’d died in his apartment and not been found for several days. I’ll just say to see someone you knew and cared about like that is something that changes you deeply. I can see why Buddhist monks used to go to meditate in burial grounds, to be made so clearly aware of the matter of death. But that’s all I’ll say about it, because this is not about me. Or even about death. It’s a story of Bob and his life.

Bob was a few years older than me and grew up outside Minneapolis near the suburb I lived in. He’d had a rough adolescence. In fact we talked about how he’d been at, what they called in those days, “the boy’s home,” a detention program for young men who couldn’t stay out of trouble. After that he continued to have problems. It was the 60s, and though some of the drugs we have now that really mess you up weren’t yet popular, one could do enough with alcohol, pot, and acid. He used all those, in what he later came to understand was an attempt to treat his schizophrenia, which no one had noticed or diagnosed.

The schizophrenia, mixed with the drugs, kept him off balance for a few years, and he mainly got into trouble for small crimes. All of it led to what was a defining event in his life. High, and hearing voices, he assaulted his mother, injuring her badly. He ended up after that in a state hospital, eventually under what they still call a mentally ill and dangerous commitment. He would remain on that for 20 more years and spent much time in state hospitals and halfway houses. Medications didn’t work for him, but drugs did, so he continued with that path.

As he tells it, one day a doctor met with him to tell him about a new medication, Clozaril, that seemed to help people who didn’t respond well to existent medications. Bob said the doctor asked him, “If I could give you something that would help you, and make you feel better than even any drugs you use, would you be willing to stop using them?” He said he didn’t hesitate for a moment and said “Damn right I would.”

Bob was like a poster boy for that new medication. His thinking cleared, the voices, hallucinations, and delusions went away, and he stopped drinking and using. He was finally able to leave the hospital, and decided he’d get out of the city. He had a friend he liked to fish with, who lived in the country down on the river. So, Bob moved to the little town here where he lived for another 30 years. He was still under the court’s supervision, but for the first time in many years he felt free. Not just free of the hospital but free of his illness. For those next 30 years he always made sure he did whatever he needed to be able to get the medication that had made all the difference for him.

He moved into a small apartment complex for low income people. He was proud of living on his own. He knew everyone in his building and had bought a car with some social security disability back pay. He loved and babied that car, a bright bronze PT cruiser. I’d often see him around town, and he’d never fail to wave to me. He loved to drive, not even needing to have a destination. I think in a way driving was his meditation. But he also made it his way to help others. Many of his friends and neighbors didn’t have cars, so he spent much of his time driving them wherever they needed to go—the store, the doctor, out to the casino. He was never too busy for anyone who asked him for a ride.

Bob never judged people but did have his limits. One woman whom he’d give a ride to a community lunch we had once told him, on her way back home, that she needed to pick up “just a couple of things” at Walmart. She promised that it would only take a few minutes. She came out after 90 minutes with a full cart. After that, Bob would give her a ride to lunch but never again stopped off along the way for her.

A few years after I started working with Bob, we decided to ask the review board that oversees people under his long-term commitment if he could be released from it. He had to go to the state hospital where he’d spent so many years to be assessed. There was lots of flooding that spring, and we had to keep negotiating closed river crossings and highways to get there in time, but he never became angry or frustrated. He just kept directing me onto the next detour. At the end of the assessment, the doctor told him that he was surprised he’d walked out of the hospital and never come back, because most people didn’t do that. Not understanding that he meant most people failed and had to return, Bob told him, “Well, I didn’t know I could come back for a visit to see you all, or I certainly would have done that.” When he appeared before the special review board, they told him they’d never seen anyone more successful or more deserving of being returned to full rights.

Bob’s relationship with his family, needless to say, was fraught. Even after leaving the hospital he was only able to write or phone his mother, but he did that faithfully. When a few years back she and his sister sent him some family photos, he was so excited. He went and bought a bookcase, to display all the pictures of his mom, dad, siblings, and himself, in a place of honor in his living room. He was frugal, and despite being on a limited income still managed to put aside money regularly. He told me once, “I’m going to show you where I hide my savings. If anything ever happens to me, I want you to promise you’ll see that this money gets to my mother.” I did, though I figured since she was 92 I’d never have to follow through on that promise.

Bob had a sweet tooth. He liked candy, dollar pies, and diet Pepsi. He’d buy those in quantity (actually be bought everything in quantity) so that the crisper drawer in the bottom of his fridge was filled with cans of Pepsi. He kept it on hand to share with anyone who’d accept it. And he’d pass out pies and milk duds to his friends and neighbors. I long ago quit drinking soda pop, making only one exception: when I’d stop by to help him with his bills and medical appointments he’d tell me to pull 2 cans of Pepsi out of the fridge—one for him and one for me.

Bob had some medical problems and could be a little forgetful on occasion. But I will always remember going in with him to the clinic where he’d been going several times a week for chemotherapy infusions (he’d had breast cancer, which never failed to make him laugh and comment that “I never knew men could get that!”) As we wove our way through the clinic, stopping to register and check in with various nurses and stations, he knew every single one of them by name. He asked them how they were doing, and asked questions about their kids or partners. I could tell he’d talked with them numerous times, in detail, when he’d been in there.

He also had broken his ankle in a fall and had to be in a nursing home for a time–which he absolutely couldn’t bear and wanted desperately to get back home. While there he also found out he had some type of aneurysm and had to go in for tests regarding that. The doctors confirmed that he did had a serious aneurysm, and it might kill him one day. But they also told him that it would be riskier to do surgery to try and repair it than to leave it be. He accepted that, and never really mentioned it again. And he was very open about anything that worried him or caused him fear, so I know he just accepted it as something that he couldn’t change, and so never spent any more time on it.

That was what finally got him, apparently. I usually like to tie my stories up, bring them to a good ending. But Bob’s ended suddenly and too soon. Like I said, anyone can be a Bodhisattva. He helped save me just a little bit. And here’s a secret: Bodhisattvas are everywhere. I shared Bob’s story with a friend, Reed, who told me that learning to spot bodhisattvas around her has been vital for her hope to ever act as one. She said for her that offers hope, and heals alienation and disempowerment in the ordinary. For me it’s a bit like when you buy a new car that there seem to be few of, and then everywhere you look on the road you see it. Or looking for a particular type of bird for a long time, and once I see one, the world is filled with them. I’m not sure if my eyes have opened up to what was all around me, or they’ve come to be seen. Either way, the world is changed for me.

So may you begin to see the Bodhisattvas around you. Maybe you’d like to be one too. All it might take to get started is a few cans of diet Pepsi and a dollar pie. I know Bob would like that.